What is food addiction?
Just as a person can become addicted to drugs or alcohol, they can become
addicted to food. A food addict experiences a compulsive need to eat, even when
they’re not hungry.
People with other eating disorders, such an anorexia or bulimia, can also
have food addiction. While many people overindulge from time to time, a food
addict typically struggles with binge eating on a daily basis. This isn’t the
same as eating too much at a holiday meal or having too many cookies. Food
addicts may have a hard time controlling their eating, despite the desire to
are the causes of food addiction?
This addiction is complex. Food, like drugs and alcohol, can trigger the
release of dopamine in the brain. This chemical is related to pleasure. It
creates a positive link between food and emotional well-being. The addicted
brain sees food as a drug. To a food addict, food produces feelings of
pleasure, even when the body doesn’t need the calories. A 2010 study published in
Current Opinion in
Gastroenterology shows increasing evidence that food
addiction is a result of changes in a person’s neurochemistry and neuroanatomy.
published in 2010 showed that when lab rats were given free access to high-fat,
high-sugar foods, their brains changed. The changes in their behavior and
physiology were similar to those caused by drug abuse. The study authors
cautioned against drawing a parallel between drug and food addictions, but
their work does assert that there are similarities. It also highlights the possibility
that eating lots of unhealthy foods could increase your chances of becoming
addicted to eating.
are the symptoms of food addiction?
Addiction isn’t always easy to identify. This is especially true for food
addiction because we all need to eat.
Food addicts can have symptoms of other conditions, including depression,
binge eating, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). They will hide their
problem by eating in private and even hiding food.
Common signs of food addiction include:
- constant obsession with what to eat, when to eat, how
much to eat, and how to get more food
- overeating at mealtime
- constant snacking
- eating at strange times like in the middle of the night
- hiding eating habits from friends and family or eating
- bingeing and then purging, exercising, or taking
laxative pills to “reverse” the binge
- eating even when full
- eating to accompany pleasurable activities like
watching TV or talking on the phone
- associating food with punishments or rewards
- feeling shame and guilt after a binge or after
consuming particular foods
- consistent failed attempts to control eating or
eliminate bingeing episodes
Food addiction can often appear less serious than other addictions. However,
it’s a condition that tends to progress gradually. It can result in lifelong
obesity or health problems and worsen existing mental health issues.
What are the treatment options for food addiction?
Food addiction is typically treated in the same ways as other addictions. It’s
a common belief in the medical community that addicted brains work in exactly
the same way, regardless of what the person is addicted to.
Changing behaviors and managing physical cravings are key elements in
treating food addiction. The following treatment options may be helpful.
behavioral therapy (CBT)
Food addicts must learn to manage their triggers for eating. CBT focuses on
helping them identify appropriate behavioral responses for day-to-day
challenges. It teaches the food addict how to handle the negative thought
patterns that can lead to bingeing.
A food addict may use food to numb painful feelings or avoid dealing with
other emotional issues. Psychotherapy may help get to the root cause of
overeating. It can teach a person how to deal with emotions in a positive way,
rather than by eating.
Food addicts also often experience shame, guilt, and poor body image. Talk
therapy can help a food addict work through their emotional issues.
In many cases, people with severe nutritional deficiencies or chemical
imbalances in the body have a food addiction. A personalized nutrition plan can
help manage or eliminate cravings. Addressing nutritional needs with the help
of a medical doctor or nutritionist can enable an addict to pinpoint the foods
that will satisfy their food cravings.
Food Addicts Anonymous (FAA) and Overeaters Anonymous (OA) are 12-step programs
that take inspiration from the Alcoholics Anonymous model of recovery. These
groups can help food addicts manage their addictions in a supportive and
encouraging environment. Being part of a group of people with a similar problem
allows a food addict to develop positive friendships in a safe, nurturing
For some, a food addiction can have a connection to another mental health
disorder. In these cases, it may be necessary to treat the individual with
medication to promote overall stability. Drugs like antidepressants may help
address the root cause of cravings.
are the complications associated with food addiction?
Food addiction can have many negative consequences. Without treatment,
someone addicted to food can struggle with obesity. Poor nutrition and obesity
can lead to increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and more.
Digestive problems, such as severe constipation, are very common in food
Vomiting food after bingeing can damage the esophagus and cause dehydration,
tooth decay, and heart failure.
People with a food addiction may push their loved ones away. Untreated, this
problem can damage relationships and worsen mental health disorders. Depending
on the severity of the addiction, it can also have financial effects, as the
addict would rather spend money on food than other necessities.
What is the long-term
A food addict must learn to develop eating habits that are in tune with their
body’s natural cravings. They must also learn to eat when they’re hungry, not
in response to emotional needs or stress. A food addict can’t simply eliminate food;
it’s a basic need. Instead, food addicts must develop a healthy relationship
with food over time.
It’s often helpful for a food addict to have access to a variety of
activities and resources that promote healthy living, such as a fitness center,
nutrition classes, or stress-reduction techniques.
If you or someone you know is struggling with a food
addiction, your doctor can help. You can also go online to look up resources, find
more information, and learn about treatment options. Many of these resources